Tag Archives: feminism 101

Words Aren’t Magic

So let’s talk about This Shit Right Here (that’s an archive.today link), in which technology consultant Jeff Reifman accuses Geek feminism blogger Leigh Honeywell and advice columnist Captain Awkward of harassment.

Last November, Reifman wrote a lengthy post about his relationship with an ex who eventually asked him to stop contacting her, then threatened to get a court order when he did not. He used her as an example to decry what he called ‘cutoff culture,’ and to suggest that women who want to cut exes out of their lives have an obligation to find some kind of ‘compromise’ to make sure their ex’s emotional needs are met.

Leigh and the Captain, both feminist activists, called him out. The Captain did so in this excellent post breaking down the entitlement and abuser-logic in his arguments. Leigh called him out on twitter. He wrote something in public; they challenged it in public.

Reifman then sent Leigh an email that prompted her to publicly and privately tell him never to contact her again.

So he wrote a blog post in which Leigh is very easy to identify to trash talk her for ‘harassing’ him, implying that it’s a a violation of Double Union’s Anti-Harassment Policy for her to call out his enormously-creepy behavior towards an ex who’d asked him to leave her alone (including publicly hashing out his relationship with said ex with roughly as much care for hiding her identity as he showed for hiding Leigh’s).
The Geek Feminism Code Of Conduct contains a section on things we specifically don’t consider harassment:

The Geek Feminism community prioritizes marginalized people’s safety over privileged people’s comfort. The Geek Feminism Anti-Abuse Team will not act on complaints regarding:

  • ‘Reverse’ -isms, including ‘reverse racism,’ ‘reverse sexism,’ and ‘cisphobia’ (because these things don’t exist)
  • Reasonable communication of boundaries, such as “leave me alone,” “go away,” or “I’m not discussing this with you.”
  • Refusal to explain or debate social justice concepts
  • Communicating in a ‘tone’ you don’t find congenial
  • Criticizing racist, sexist, cissexist, or otherwise oppressive behavior or assumptions

I wrote that section because people on an axis of privilege have a nasty tendency to appropriate social justice terminology (like privilege and harassment) and twist it around to serve their own point of view. They treat these words like magic incantations, as if it’s the words, rather than the argument, that convinces people.

Words are not magic incantations. They have meanings. Using a word without understanding its meaning just because you’ve seen other people successfully use it to convey a point is magical thinking.

Sometimes, the people who employ these words as magic incantations mistake other people’s refusal to engage for a victory–they must have successfully turned social justice sorcerers’ magic words against us, because we won’t argue with them anymore. Reifman himself engages in a version of this fallacy when he armchair-diagnoses his critics as ‘triggered’ rather than recognizing that their anger is a natural reaction to his demands for free emotional labor. The truth is more mundane: most of us are not interested in teaching reading comprehension to people whose comprehension is willfully limited to concepts that support their privilege.

This is the email that led Leigh to publicly tell Reifman to leave her alone:

From: Jeff Reifman
Date: Mon, May 12, 2014 at 11:03 PM
Subject: Responding to your tweets
To: Leigh Honeywell
Cc: [redacted mutual friend]

Hi Leigh, I don’t know if you remember meeting me – but I think we met
at Elysian, I’m actually close friends with [redacted mutual friend]. I saw your
tweets and your medium note and thought I would reach out.

I noticed that the comment policy on your blog asks that commenters be “
non-discriminatory, friendly, funny, or perspicacious” … I’m super
open to a discussion about this as long as comments are civil and
constructive. I would hope you would tweet as you wish others to
publicly comment on your blog.

Using the word shitbag … and repeated mentions of “fuck” both on
twitter and on medium doesn’t represent civil discussion very well.

the feedback I’ve received from the cutoff essay has been overall very
positive – but sometimes it triggers people … and I’ve now, only
twice, received attacks like this – you’re the second.

I’m open to talking about it – especially if you want to highlight
specifics … but I ask that you be civil and constructive …[sic]

Jeff Reifman

Translation: Tone argument, demand for free emotional labor and education, tone argument, tone argument, lurkers support me in email, tone argument.

You’ll notice that he CC’d a mutual friend of theirs. Then he went and wrote this follow-up post, using barely-pixelated avatars and so many direct quotes that Leigh and the Captain are laughably easy to identify. So for all his thinky thoughts about ‘shaming,’ he clearly has no problem with trying to shame people who call out his extremely inappropriate behavior.

Too bad he’s trying to do so with magic incantations.

Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

Re-post: How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on September 17, 2012.

An earlier version of this post appears on Tim’s blog.

Excluding by inclusion

This year’s “Future of Haskell” discussion, which traditionally ends the annual Haskell Symposium, stumbled into the question of gender equity, via the perennial question of how to increase the number of Haskell programmers. Many programmers (of all genders) find math intimidating and think that the Haskell programming language requires more mathematical skill than other popular languages. In the discussion, Doaitse Swierstra, a professor of computer science at the University of Utrecht, suggested that a good way to increase the number of Haskell programmers would be to recruit one woman for every man in the room. So far, so good: in fact, Prof. Swierstra showed creativity by introducing the problem of gender inequity at this point in the discussion. But then he went on to say that if this goal were achieved, it would make the meetings more “attractive”.

Speaking as someone who attended functional programming conferences for ten years, the field of programming language (PL) research in general is particularly male-dominated even by computer science standards. Also anecdotally, functional programming is an even more male-dominated sub-field within PL research. I would sometimes play a game during conference talks where I would count the number of men with long hair, and the number of women, in the room. There were always more long-haired men than women. I can’t know what someone’s gender is by looking at them (as I well know, since before 2007 most people who looked at me would have thought I counted as one of those women). Still, even with a very generous estimate as to how many people who appeared to be men may actually have been trans women or genderqueer people, the conferences would still have had a gender balance that doesn’t reflect the underlying population, or even the gender balance in computer science or software as a whole. Even the field of mathematics is less male-dominated than functional programming research, so the excuse that PL people are blameless and the numbers result from discouragement of girls learning math at the primary and secondary educational levels does not explain the imbalance.

Prof. Swierstra does get credit for recognizing that there is a problem. And I don’t doubt that by making the comments he made, he intended to encourage the inclusion of women, not exclusion. (You can listen to the relevant part of the discussion yourself—the link goes directly to 32:00 in the video. Apologizes in advance to those who are hard of hearing; I didn’t want to attempt a transcript beyond what I already paraphrased, since I wasn’t totally sure about all of it.)

Even so, Swierstra’s remark provides a great example of how it’s not the intent behind what you say that matters, but rather, the effect that your words have. By following a call for more women in the room with a comment about his opinion of women’s greater attractiveness relative to men, he completely undermined his own attempt to encourage equality, whether or not that was his intent. If you accidentally run a person over with your car, not having intended to hurt them doesn’t make them less dead. And if you make an objectifying comment that tells women their value at an academic conference is as decoration, not having intended to send that message doesn’t make those women feel any more welcome. (While accidental killings are punished less harshly than deliberate ones, the analogy stops holding at that point, since no one wants to punish people for accidentally making sexist comments, only to ask them to reflect and learn so they don’t make such comments in the future.)
Continue reading

Photograph of a sky-written question mark by Dennis Hill

Ask a Geek Feminist, round 7

Welcome to round 7 of Ask a Geek Feminist! How it works:

  • if you’ve got a question you think a geek feminist could answer, post a comment in reply to this post. (Comments will not be publicly visible.)
  • about a week from now I’ll distribute questions to my co-bloggers and they can make a post with an answer to a question as they like
  • about a week after that I’ll choose some of the remaining questions and open them up to our commenters

Your question, if it appears in a post, will be quoted (possibly edited for length) but not attributed to you, unless you ask us to attribute it. Since we’re not making them publicly visible, questions can be about anything you like; however obviously if you stray too far from our comment policy the chances of ever seeing an answer are pretty slim. Check out previous posts answering questions to see how this worked before.

Questions do not have to be about feminism or or obviously feminist topics: they could be about geeky interests including pop culture, about careers, about social life and so on. Given the name of this blog though, feminism might appear in the answer…

If you have a 101 (introductory) questions about feminism we suggest that:

  • you’ve looked over Finally Feminism 101’s FAQs and the Geek Feminism wiki’s 101 page to see if you can get an answer there first; and
  • you explain why you want a geek feminist, in particular, to answer this question. Do you think there’s a particular geek slant on this we might have or that our readers might like to discuss? The series is intended to produce interesting things for our community to think about and talk about, as well as an answer for the questioner.

If your question boils down to “why are there so few women in science/computer science/mathematics/engineering/physics, and what should we do?”, we’re unlikely to answer, please see this list of resources to turn to.

Questions will be accepted until comments on this post close in about a fortnight. (I don’t want to accept them constantly, because of the work of anonymising them.) If you miss out and find comments have already closed, another round will run within about six months… You can also ask questions non-anonymously in Open threads, although they may not be promoted to the front page.

Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying

An earlier version of this post appears on Tim’s blog.

Excluding by inclusion

This year’s “Future of Haskell” discussion, which traditionally ends the annual Haskell Symposium, stumbled into the question of gender equity, via the perennial question of how to increase the number of Haskell programmers. Many programmers (of all genders) find math intimidating and think that the Haskell programming language requires more mathematical skill than other popular languages. In the discussion, Doaitse Swierstra, a professor of computer science at the University of Utrecht, suggested that a good way to increase the number of Haskell programmers would be to recruit one woman for every man in the room. So far, so good: in fact, Prof. Swierstra showed creativity by introducing the problem of gender inequity at this point in the discussion. But then he went on to say that if this goal were achieved, it would make the meetings more “attractive”.

Speaking as someone who attended functional programming conferences for ten years, the field of programming language (PL) research in general is particularly male-dominated even by computer science standards. Also anecdotally, functional programming is an even more male-dominated sub-field within PL research. I would sometimes play a game during conference talks where I would count the number of men with long hair, and the number of women, in the room. There were always more long-haired men than women. I can’t know what someone’s gender is by looking at them (as I well know, since before 2007 most people who looked at me would have thought I counted as one of those women). Still, even with a very generous estimate as to how many people who appeared to be men may actually have been trans women or genderqueer people, the conferences would still have had a gender balance that doesn’t reflect the underlying population, or even the gender balance in computer science or software as a whole. Even the field of mathematics is less male-dominated than functional programming research, so the excuse that PL people are blameless and the numbers result from discouragement of girls learning math at the primary and secondary educational levels does not explain the imbalance.

Prof. Swierstra does get credit for recognizing that there is a problem. And I don’t doubt that by making the comments he made, he intended to encourage the inclusion of women, not exclusion. (You can listen to the relevant part of the discussion yourself—the link goes directly to 32:00 in the video. Apologizes in advance to those who are hard of hearing; I didn’t want to attempt a transcript beyond what I already paraphrased, since I wasn’t totally sure about all of it.)

Even so, Swierstra’s remark provides a great example of how it’s not the intent behind what you say that matters, but rather, the effect that your words have. By following a call for more women in the room with a comment about his opinion of women’s greater attractiveness relative to men, he completely undermined his own attempt to encourage equality, whether or not that was his intent. If you accidentally run a person over with your car, not having intended to hurt them doesn’t make them less dead. And if you make an objectifying comment that tells women their value at an academic conference is as decoration, not having intended to send that message doesn’t make those women feel any more welcome. (While accidental killings are punished less harshly than deliberate ones, the analogy stops holding at that point, since no one wants to punish people for accidentally making sexist comments, only to ask them to reflect and learn so they don’t make such comments in the future.)
Continue reading

Ask a Geek Feminist, round 6

Welcome to round 6 of Ask a Geek Feminist! How it works:

  • if you’ve got a question you think a geek feminist could answer, post a comment in reply to this post. (Comments will not be publicly visible.)
  • about a week from now I’ll distribute questions to my co-bloggers and they can make a post with an answer to a question as they like
  • about a week after that I’ll choose some of the remaining questions and open them up to our commenters

Your question, if it appears in a post, will be quoted (possibly edited for length) but not attributed to you, unless you ask us to attribute it. Since we’re not making them publicly visible, questions can be about anything you like; however obviously if you stray too far from our comment policy the chances of ever seeing an answer are pretty slim. Check out previous posts answering questions to see how this worked before.

Questions do not have to be about feminism or or obviously feminist topics: they could be about geeky interests including pop culture, about careers, about social life and so on. Given the name of this blog though, feminism might appear in the answer…

If you have a 101 (introductory) questions about feminism we suggest that:

  • you’ve looked over Finally Feminism 101’s FAQs and the Geek Feminism wiki’s 101 page to see if you can get an answer there first; and
  • you explain why you want a geek feminist, in particular, to answer this question. Do you think there’s a particular geek slant on this we might have or that our readers might like to discuss? The series is intended to produce interesting things for our community to think about and talk about, as well as an answer for the questioner.

If your question boils down to “why are there so few women in science/computer science/mathematics/engineering/physics, and what should we do?”, we’re unlikely to answer, please see this list of resources to turn to.

Questions will be accepted until comments on this post close in about a fortnight. (I don’t want to accept them constantly, because of the work of anonymising them.) If you miss out and find comments have already closed, another round will run within about six months… You can also ask questions non-anonymously in Open threads, although they may not be promoted to the front page.

Angry woman covered in dark paint, wearing a shirt reading 'freedom'

Re-post: “Why don’t you just hit him?”

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from earlier in the year. This post originally appeared on December 7, 2010.

Warning: this post and links from it discuss both harassment and violence, imagined and real.

Valerie has had a lot of comments and private email in response to her conference anti-harassment policy suggesting that a great deal of the problem would be solved if women were encouraged to hit their harassers: usually people suggest an open handed slap, a knee to groin, or even tasers and mace (no suggestions for tear gas or rubber bullets yet). I sent her such a lengthy email about it that we agreed that I clearly at some level wanted to post about it. What can I do but obey my muse?

OK. Folks…

This is not one of those entries I am thrilled in my soul to have to write, but here’s why “hit him!” is not a solution for everyone and definitely does not replace the need for people with authority to take a stand against harassment.

And I know some people were joking. But not everyone was, you’ll need to trust me on this. Your “jeez, guys like that are lucky they don’t get a knee in the groin more often… hey wait, maybe you should just have a Knee In Groin Policy!” joke was appearing in inboxes right alongside material seriously saying that all of this policy nonsense wouldn’t be necessary if women were just brave and defended themselves properly, if they’d just for once get it right.

Here are some samples:

  • Duncan on LWN: What I kept thinking while reading the original article, especially about the physical assaults, is that it was too bad the victims in question weren’t carrying Mace, pepper-spray, etc, and wasn’t afraid to use it. A couple incidents of that and one would think the problem would disappear…
  • NAR on LWN: I’ve read the blog about the assault – it’s absolutely [appalling] and in my opinion the guy deserved a knee to his groin and some time behind bars. (NAR then goes on to note that women should also wear skirts below the knee; which is very much making it about the victim. Dress right! Fight back!)
  • A comment on Geek Feminism that was not published: …you also need to make it known to women that they need to immediately retaliate (preferably in the form of a slap loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear)… Women -must- stand up for themselves and report the guy, preferably after a loud humiliating slap immediately following the incident.
  • crusoe on reddit: You need to end right then and there. Its one thing to make blog posts, its another to call a jerk out for it on the conference floor, including stomping a toe, or poking them hard in the belly… Do not stew about it, do not run home and write a blog post about it. Just call them on it right then and there. (As long as crusoe doesn’t have to hear about it…)

First up, one key thing about this and many similar responses (“just ignore him”, “just spread the word”, “just yell at him”):

Harassment is not a private matter between harasser and victim, and it’s not the victim’s job to put a stop to it.

The harasser is responsible for their actions. The surrounding culture is responsible for condemning them and making it clear those actions and expressions of attitudes that underlie them are not acceptable. (See Rape Culture 101.) The victim may choose to go to the police, yell, hit, scream, confront, go to a counsellor, tell their mother, tell their father, tell their friends, warn people. They may choose not to. Whether they do or not, we are all responsible for making harassment unacceptable where we are. Harassment, and stopping it, is not the victim’s responsibility. (See But You Have to Report It!)

Am I against hitting a harasser in all situations? No. Am I advocating against it in all situations? No.

However, here’s a lengthy and incomplete list of reasons why victims may not be able or may choose not to hit a harasser and why it is definitely not a general solution for the problem of harassment. I even have a special buzzer on hand that will sound when the reasons are related to gender discrimination. Listen for it, it goes like this: BZZZT! Got it? BZZZT!
Continue reading

Feminist license plates, by Liz Henry CC BY-SA 2.0

They’re trying hard, or they’re angry: talking about feminism, outreach and gender equality

These are Ask a Geek Feminist questions for our readers.

They’re not the same question, but I put them together because they’re related. If you want to distinguish them in comments, call them Q1 and Q2.

Q1 is a question about what to do when an individual or group is trying hard to be gender-inclusive, you want to make some smaller suggestions but don’t want them to respond with “well, that was all a waste of time then, we may as well not bother if we try and then get criticised!”

Around me, i see a number of people concerned about including more women in their geeky meetings, or in the geek crowd at large. Each time i see an effort in that sense, and maybe because i have been reading this blog for so long, i notice little things that make me say “it would have been good, only if…”

One example is my hackerspace. In the attempt of organizing a more women-friendly event, someone posted a link to a blog post. In the blog post, i found sensible things, as well as links to yours and linux’s wikis on how to make your geek event more women friendly. Among the recommendations, i found the idea to “Emphasise non-coding” because “It is more likely that women have studied or have experience in design or other non-coding skill sets.” And i felt that something was wrong with that. Is it just me being picky? Should i say something to the group about that (along the lines of “the post is great but… the bit about women not coding doesn’t seem to make sense to me”) or should i just let it go, because i’m obviously not an expert, and it will probably work and attract more women to follow those guidelines. And i’m just being picky and negative when thinking those negative details.

Another example. I have a friend who is always saying that there should be more women in computers/hacking communities. He is a very interesting guy, and we share common interests, but i can’t help to feel like an “exception” as a female geek when talking to him. He is the kind to always do the reverse of points 3.9, 3.13, 3.14 in Don’t complain about the lack of women in computing. And i don’t know how to explain well that to him, since all conversations about “theories” end up in him saying “i’m too tired to think that much” (or something along those lines)… So how important is it that i try to express myself on such details? Is it worth it? Should i just spare my time and try to act more (code/hack…)? Those are not “acts against women” per se, no sexist jokes, no aggression… and I’m not sure what would benefit more in the end…

Q2 is trying to have discussions with a more actively hostile party, someone who doesn’t want to discuss feminism within its own framework at all:

A good friend of mine (white male) is usually a very good, attentive discussion partner. But he has a tendency to shut down completely on a conversation when I start using what he terms “victim’s rhetoric”. As far as I understand his term, he means that minorities (LGBT people, feminists) are prone to ‘complaining’ without offering constructive suggestions for change. I try to explain that I’m not complaining when I’m trying to throw light on the ways in which kyriarchy affects mine and other women’s lives, for example in the pervasive media stereotypes. I feel like he derails the conversation by asking me to present him with ‘solutions’ rather than ‘complaints’. Are my feelings unjustified? How do I come back once he’s played the “rhetoric” card?

Feminist license plates, by Liz Henry CC BY-SA 2.0

Diversity: uses thereof

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

Outside of being a measurement for the presence of oppression, why is diversity a good thing?

In a post several weeks ago a geek feminist made reference to the ideology that companies (particularly in STEM fields) these days feel a bit “embarrassed” by the lack of diversity in their labs, and that by attempting to correct the problem for reasons of not being embarrassed they proved them selves not to “get it” when it came to WHY diversity is something they should strive for. Upon reading this it dawned on me, why IS diversity a good thing?

Obviously the measure of diversity is a good marker for the amount of discouragement marginalized people may be experiencing in particular fields, since there are reasons other than direct oppression involved when a person chooses a career path (i.e. women are encouraged to play with dolls and not soldering irons, black kids are encouraged to play football and basketball and not chess, etc). But it has recently appear to me that other than as a level of measurement, I have NO idea why diversity is by default and in and of itself, a “good thing”.

Is there ever a situation where the stats simply express a tendency devoid of enculturation? (do most boys just not want to be interior decorators? Do most girls not want to be physicists?). I fully acknowledge that obviously women among other “minority” groups have been bared from participating in such endeavors and as such have historically had their interests “shaped” away from what was considered “men’s work”, but I am very curious, should we be trying to “enforce” rather than “enable” equal gender representation for reasons outside of removing oppression?

I’m not certain, but the reference to the post “several weeks ago” (this question dates from early June) may be a reference to my post When your advertising is more diverse than you are, in which I wrote:

For that matter, what do you want diversity for? For all that I and other people who write here really want diversity to be a concern for geekdom, I think having it as solely a checklist thing is a disservice to the people who will comprise the diversity. What are you offering those people? What are they offering you? Is it all one way? Is this about avoiding negative publicity or something more?

Ask a Geek Feminist, round 5

Welcome to round 5 of Ask a Geek Feminist! How it works:

  • if you’ve got a question you think a geek feminist could answer, post a comment in reply to this post. (Comments will not be publicly visible.)
  • about a week from now I’ll distribute questions to my co-bloggers and they can make a post with an answer to a question as they like
  • about a week after that I’ll choose some of the remaining questions and open them up to our commenters

Your question, if it appears in a post, will be quoted (possibly edited for length) but not attributed to you, unless you ask us to attribute it. Since we’re not making them publicly visible, questions can be about anything you like; however obviously if you stray too far from our comment policy the chances of ever seeing an answer are pretty slim. Check out previous posts answering questions to see how this worked before.

Questions do not have to be about feminism or or obviously feminist topics: they could be about geeky interests including pop culture, about careers, about social life and so on. Given the name of this blog though, feminism might appear in the answer…

If you have a 101 (introductory) questions about feminism we suggest that:

  • you’ve looked over Finally Feminism 101’s FAQs and the Geek Feminism wiki’s 101 page to see if you can get an answer there first; and
  • you explain why you want a geek feminist, in particular, to answer this question. Do you think there’s a particular geek slant on this we might have or that our readers might like to discuss? The series is intended to produce interesting things for our community to think about and talk about, as well as an answer for the questioner.

If your question boils down to “why are there so few women in science/computer science/mathematics/engineering/physics, and what should we do?”, we’re unlikely to answer, please see this list of resources to turn to.

Questions will be accepted until comments on this post close in about a fortnight. (I don’t want to accept them constantly, because of the work of anonymising them.) If you miss out and find comments have already closed, another round will run within about six months… You can also ask questions non-anonymously in Open threads, although they may not be promoted to the front page.

Ask a Geek Feminist, round 4

Welcome to round 4 of Ask a Geek Feminist! How it works:

  • if you’ve got a question you think a geek feminist could answer, post a comment in reply to this post. (Comments will not be publicly visible.)
  • about a week from now I’ll distribute questions to my co-bloggers and they can make a post with an answer to a question as they like
  • about a week after that I’ll choose some of the remaining questions and open them up to our commenters

Your question, if it appears in a post, will be quoted (possibly edited for length) but not attributed to you, unless you ask us to attribute it. Since we’re not making them publicly visible, questions can be about anything you like; however obviously if you stray too far from our comment policy the chances of ever seeing an answer are pretty slim. Check out previous posts answering questions to see how this worked before.

Questions do not have to be about feminism or or obviously feminist topics: they could be about geeky interests, about careers, about social life and so on. Given the name of this blog though, feminism might appear in the answer…

If you have a 101 (introductory) questions about feminism we suggest that:

  • you’ve looked over Finally Feminism 101’s FAQs and the Geek Feminism wiki’s 101 page to see if you can get an answer there first; and
  • you explain why you want a geek feminist, in particular, to answer this question. Do you think there’s a particular geek slant on this we might have or that our readers might like to discuss? The series is intended to produce interesting things for our community to think about and talk about, as well as an answer for the questioner.

If your question boils down to “why are there so few women in science/computer science/mathematics/engineering/physics, and what should we do?”, we’re unlikely to answer, please see this list of resources to turn to.

Questions will be accepted until comments on this post close in about a fortnight. (I don’t want to accept them constantly, because of the work of anonymising them.) If you miss out and find comments have already closed, another round will run later in 2011. You can also ask questions non-anonymously in Open threads, although they may not be promoted to the front page.